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Actor Josh Hutcherson syas he has no problem playing the second lead to a woman: ‘I’m the damsel in distress in this at times, I don’t have any problem with that.’

Luke MacGregor/Reuters

It amuses me when stars say that, as kids, they knew they wanted to act. Most children are natural actors: They are the centre of their universe; they love drama; and what is playing pretend if not nascent scene work? So it's not unusual that Josh Hutcherson, the baby-faced, 22-year-old co-star of The Hunger Games series, announced his ambitions at age four.

(For those unfamiliar with the series, whose third instalment, Mockingjay – Part 1, opens today: Hutcherson plays Peeta, one of two rivals vying for Katniss, the archer-cum-revolutionary played by Jennifer Lawrence. Peeta is the sweet one, a baker. Gale, the moody one, a miner who's always attractively covered in coal dust, is played by Liam Hemsworth.)

What is unusual is this: At age nine, living in small-town Union, Ky., Hutcherson grabbed the yellow pages, looked up talent agencies, and phoned one in Cincinnati, Ohio, the nearest city. Their response was, "Talk to your parents," he recalled in a phone interview this week.

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In the first real step that divides kids who like to act from kids who become actors, Hutcherson's parents took him seriously. They phoned the agency, set up a meeting. A few months later, his mother drove him across the country, checked into a motel on L.A.'s fringes – "a dingy little place," he says, laughing – and began ferrying him to auditions, often five a day.

He loved it (that's the second step). "It was fun. It was a dream come true. It meant I was an actor."

The third step: He was good at it. He landed TV pilots, telefilms, a guest spot on ER. He played a kid in a Robin costume in American Splendor. And then, jackpot: He won the lead in The Polar Express, opposite Tom Hanks. It made $183-million (U.S.).

Hutcherson's mother quit her job with Delta Airlines, and began home-schooling him, managing his career, and travelling with him – out to film sets, back to L.A. for auditions. His younger brother and his father, an analyst for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, held down the fort in Kentucky. The family tried to go no more than two weeks without seeing each other, Hutcherson says, "whether that meant someone driving back across the country, or flying somewhere in the middle to meet up." And the work kept coming: Hutcherson played soccer opposite Will Ferrell in Kicking & Screaming; played Robin Williams' son in RV; played the son to Annette Bening and Julianne Moore in The Kids Are All Right.

Hanks taught him the adage that "fame doesn't change you, it magnifies you," Hutcherson says. "If you're an asshole, you become a more evident asshole. If you're a good person, you become a good person in a bigger way." He decided to be the latter. In honour of two uncles who died of AIDS, he co-founded a gay-straight alliance called Straight But Not Narrow.

In our interview, which happened two hours late because his schedule was so loaded, he was energetically earnest – though his straight-from-the-playbook answers did remind me of the scene in Bull Durham where Kevin Costner teaches Tim Robbins how to talk without saying anything.

For example, Hutcherson says that filming Mockingjay – Part 1 was great, if a little lonely, because Peeta is separated from his pals: "It was sad knowing my best friends were making another movie and I wasn't there." Shooting a climactic scene in which Peeta becomes violent was great, though he did feel drained at the end of the day: "I was a bit of a zombie on the car ride home." And he has so many happy memories from the series that he can't name a particular one: "Every moment is so good. All the time, we're just being ourselves, having fun. Even just hanging out in our hotel rooms after wrap – talking, doing nothing, listening to music – is the best thing. It's such a genuine, pure love that it's there all the time."

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His co-star Lawrence is also great, he continues, "the definition of outgoing. Always on, always funny. So caring and considerate of people around her. She speaks from her heart, in real life and as an actress. People crave authenticity, and she has that."

On the publicity circuit, the two are as goofy as puppies together, and have been since their first conversation, when Jen phoned Josh to congratulate him on being cast. The first thing she said to him – apropos of nothing – was, "Imagine getting a catheter – oh my god, right?" A few seconds later, she was on to the subject of demon possessions. "It was the craziest, weirdest conversation I'd ever had," Hutcherson says, "and our relationship has lived up to that – it's been weird and wonderful all along the way. Jen has no filter whatsoever."

While some actors balk at playing the second lead to a woman, worried they may look weak, Hutcherson "never felt that way," he says. "I just want to play the most interesting characters I can. So if I'm the damsel in distress in this at times, I don't have any problem with that." And when the fans scream his name, his initial reaction may be, "Whoa, that's weird," but he also realizes, "It's cool to be in a position where, just by saying hi to someone or taking a photo, they can get so excited and so happy that they're crying."

In the Hunger Games, children between the ages of 12 and 18 are chosen by lottery to compete to the death, and various adults – played by Donald Sutherland, Stanley Tucci and Philip Seymour Hoffman – are on hand to coerce them. Similarly, in Hollywood, the children whose acting dreams come true support a multibillion-dollar industry. The first two Hunger Games movies have grossed more than $1.5-billion worldwide. Generating that much and more are the kids from the Harry Potter and Twilight franchises. The leading players are still young: Jennifer Lawrence and Kristen Stewart are 24; Daniel Radcliffe is 25. They've succeeded beyond their childhood fantasies, but they've worked beyond their years to do it.

Hutcherson is glad he started as a child, "because I wasn't aware of that pressure," he says. "If I'd started at 15, I would have felt more pressure, because I knew my family was sacrificing so much. But I was so young, I didn't think about the economics or logistics. I just was like, 'I love this.' Once I became successful, I was able to take care of my family, I was able to afford to fly to see them.

"But it was a huge sacrifice on my family's part," he continues. "To break the mould of the traditional, perfect family – to allow me to split the family up to go for my dreams – was a huge risk. I'm really happy it paid off."

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